This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Looking closely at my wristband

America is in debt. It probably owes millions merely from the bank letters that charge £20 to tell people they are in debt. America owes so much that I expect to see George and Laura Bush on TV advertisements sitting on a battered sofa, dressed in football shirts, saying: "We found it really easy to consolidate our debts into one loan with manageable repayments." However, it was the developing world's debt that Tony Blair visited Bush to discuss.

Blair returned home looking like a witness from the Michael Jackson trial and, as he usually does after trips to his friend George, emphasising their "special relationship". Disappointingly, though, there was no mention of drinking "Jesus juice" and sharing a bed.

Much was made of Blair's visit. America, we were told, is onside for the G8 summit - victory chalked up for Blair and Brown. Or, as Bono would call them, the "Lennon and McCartney" of politics, though I prefer the sobriquet "the Chas and Dave of privatisation".

Many may see the prospect of increasing American aid as a "good thing", but the fact is that the world would be a much better place if America cut its aid budget. Yes, you read that correctly, CUT it.

If Blair cared for poverty reduction and peace, he would get on bended knee to Bush and plead: "In the name of sanity, slash your aid and get back to the golf course."

As a US government website stated: "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programmes has always been... the United States. Close to 80 per cent of the US Agency for International Development's contracts and grants goes directly to American firms." So America's aid serves as a subsidy for private US companies (as always the free marketeers can't function without state support). If this money were given directly to US companies, rather than via the aid route, the World Trade Organisation would outlaw it.

So, while the G8 finance ministers insist that poor countries privatise their economies and scrap "impediments to private investment both domestic and foreign" in order to qualify for debt cancellation, the US runs a Keynesian programme of state aid to its own companies.

Granted, hypocrisy and self-interest are not necessarily reasons to cut aid programmes. Nor is the Bush policy of not funding clinics in the developing world that even mention abortion. Nor is the teaching of abstinence in place of safe sex - even this doesn't quite justify a cut in the aid budget: a policy change, yes, but a cut, no. What does justify a cut is that, of the $19bn (about £10bn) US aid budget for 2004, $4.8bn was for military aid, according to the Congressional Research Service. Since 2000, these free guns have averaged 26 per cent of the aid budget, the main recipients being Israel, Colombia and Egypt.

It was only a few weeks ago that Egypt changed its constitution in a referendum. Now, under the new, improved constitution, a massive two candidates can run for president. A mere four weeks ago, President Hosni Mubarak, what with the US military assistance, appalling human-rights record and one-candidate elections, was practically certain of getting a front-page photo in the Sun dressed only in his underpants.

Colombia is down to get an estimated $574m of military aid this year. So the US equips an army that colludes with right-wing paramilitary forces such as the AUC, in a country where human rights defenders and trade unionists are routinely assassinated.

Which leaves Israel, the largest recipient of US gun aid, with $1.8bn for 2004. This means that Israel (a country of six million people, representing 0.1 per cent of the world's population, with one of the highest per-capita incomes) receives nearly 10 per cent of America's total aid budget, for arms alone. And this figure is poised to rise to $2.4bn by 2008.

So what are these arms Israel gets? Well, no surprises here: Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter planes and assorted Palestinian-killing equipment. What you might not know about is America's generosity to the Palestinians. Usaid gave $8m to Save the Children in grants for projects in the occupied territories "to help children deal with the current conflict situation". Roughly $22m has been given to Care International for medical equipment and training to provide "basic first aid". So America arms the Israelis, the Israelis shoot the Palestinians and America gives the Palestinians some bandages... All in all, worth wearing a wristband for.

PS: The arms manufacturer General Electric, maker of the engines for the F-16 fighters that fly over the occupied territories, and recipient of US aid via foreign sales, owns NBC Universal. Universal bankrolls Working Title Films in a partnership deal. Working Title pays Richard Curtis to write its films. Richard Curtis is one of the founders of Red Nose Day and a fellow wristband-wearer... Love Actually? Er, money, actually.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Aid Money Goes Down the Drain

Just out of curiosity, I decided to see if Nostradamus mentions Paul Wolfowitz becoming president of the World Bank. A leading architect of the Iraq war put in charge of the west's leading mechanism for alleviating global poverty surely merits a mention on the path to Armageddon.

Sadly, he doesn't, though there is a passing reference to David Icke, a frog ringtone and the mark of the beast that starts 118.

The World Bank has long been an outrider for the privatisation of the developing world, and it can only get worse now. Given Wolfowitz's impeccable neo-con credentials, Africa might as well stick up an enormous sign saying "Clearance sale. Everything must go", as an entire continent is reduced to the status of a "pound or less" shop.

This won't faze Hilary Benn, the minister in charge of the Department for International Development. Over the past six years, DfID has paid more than £34m to the Adam Smith Institute – that right-wing so-called "think-tank" – and its offspring, Adam Smith International, for consultancy and advocacy work on privatising the utilities of some of the poorest nations. Great! Give a load of Thatcherites a bundle of public cash and – surprise, surprise – they say the solution is the free market.

Leave aside the incongruities of free marketeers being in effect subsidised by government money, without which they would probably wither and die like the lame-duck dogma dealers they are. What did the money buy? Well, £430,000 was coughed up to persuade the Tanzanian public that the best way to get clean water in the country's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, was to privati . . . oh, is there even any point in finishing the word?

This work included commissioning a "pop video" singing the praises of privatisation (surely enough to make even Cliff Richard cringe), a privatisation promotional calendar (Pirelli meets Milton Friedman, with the phrase "asset stripping" in there somewhere) and privatisation Christmas cards (I envisage a nativity scene where the star over the manger is owned by Enron and Bethlehem is subject to rolling power cuts). All of which is so embarrassing that DfID should have just given the Adam Smithies the money and told them to shut the fuck up. Frankly, the money would have been better spent had Benn bought 430,000 Lottery scratch cards and sent them to Tanzania.

And so it was that Benn wasted our money on a water privatisation project that has now been cancelled by the Tanzanian government, leaving the UK multinational Biwater suing the Tanzanians for breach of contract. Incidentally, for students of irony, Biwater used to advertise under the slogan "The perfect water company".

It is a shame that Benn, the World Bank and Biwater didn't heed the advice given by the firm's country manager for Zimbabwe, Richard Whiting, after Biwater pulled out of a proposed water privatisation project in Zimbabwe: "From a social point of view, these kinds of projects are viable but unfortunately from a private sector point of view they are not." Basically this can be interpreted as: we are not going to turn a decent profit and anyway the needs of developing countries are not best met by privatisation. Wise words, Richard.

And so on to another part of the world conveniently forgotten in the mission to bring democracy and peace to the globe – Western Sahara. This was ceded by Spain to Morocco in 1976, after Rabat had illegally annexed the territory the previous year. With more than 150,000 people living in refugee camps in the Algerian desert ever since, Western Sahara has been waiting patiently for the UN to introduce a referendum on independence. Morocco, desperate to suppress nationalist sentiment and stifle reporting of the area, expelled five foreign journalists last year.

However, news is trickling out about a popular intifada launched from the occupied town of el Ayoun on 25 May, in response to the brutality of the Moroccan authorities. This has been followed by detentions and raids on activists' homes, which were described as being "full of blood" when the Moroccans left. Readers can visit War on Want or the Western Sahara Campaign websites for information, but if you are in any doubt as to the nature of the regime, there is one thing that tells you all you need to know: new Labour broke its own code of conduct to sell arms to Morocco, specifically for the conflict zone. We can therefore conclude that Morocco is an anti-democratic and torturing state.

And finally . . . for those of you who don't read Indymedia or SchNews (and there might be a couple), Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, had carrot cake and cream planted in his face last month during a meeting of "Future Heathrow". Knowing this makes the world seem a little brighter. Just thought I'd share.